Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li
Run Time: 189 mins
Babylon is an epic comedy directed by Damien Chazelle that chronicles Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound films in the late 1920s. I’ve had a mixed experience with Chazelle’s filmography. Whiplash is one of my favourite films of the 2010s, I couldn’t understand the praise for La La Land and I admired but didn’t love First Man. Babylon largely follows three leads. Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad, a successful silent film star and Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy, an aspiring actress desperate to make her mark in Hollywood. Diego Calva plays Manuel ‘Manny’ Torres, a Mexican immigrant who is happy to work on any job in the film industry. Throughout the film, the characters journeys interweave, mere cogs in the Hollywood machine.
Babylon is a return to form for Chazelle and is an ambitious, heady study of the history of cinema. It quite literally details the blood, sweat, tears and sheer luck needed to succeed in Hollywood and the strenuous work required to even film a single scene. Chazelle’s approach is unapologetic – this is a sprawling, loud film that revels in excess be it through drink, drugs or discharging of bodily fluids. But it’s also regularly profound with characters wholly aware their Hollywood career has an expiry date. Although Chazelle’s view of the Hollywood studio system is critical, his passion for film as a medium is evident throughout this three hour plus extravaganza.
The set pieces are lavish and memorable, Baz Luhrmann-esque in their construction and colour palette. The film is sumptuously shot by Chazelle regular, Linus Sandgren and the operatic, jazz-infused score by Justin Hurwitz is terrific. Chazelle also wrote the script, which is generally smart and sharp, although the humour doesn’t always work.
Brad Pitt clearly enjoyed his time on Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood and is reliably excellent in the lead role. He balances humour with melancholia beautifully, although his character is very different from his Oscar-winning film. Margot Robbie, who is also a OUATIH veteran also gives a strong performance, LaRoy desperate for stardom at any cost will do anything to stand out in the crowd, such as publicly fighting a rattlesnake. Babylon is Diego Calva’s highest-profile film to date and he is surely destined for great things. His performance is effortless, from Manny starting the film transporting an elephant to a party to having a sizeable influence on Hollywood productions.
There’s also some excellent performances from the supporting cast. Overlord’s Jovan Adepo shines as a jazz trumpeter and Li Jun Li as a Chinese-American lesbian cabaret singer. Lukas Haas and Flea are other highlights, as is Tobey Maguire as an eccentric gangster in a jarring but chilling sequence. Even Eric Roberts is decent as LaRoy’s bumbling idiot of a father, his first good role in years.
Babylon aims high and ultimately succeeds. The mixed reviews are understandable and coming into the film with an appreciation and knowledge of the Hollywood studio system will likely make for more of a profound experience. Chazelle is back at the top of his game – this is a film that only an auteur director would be allowed to make. Babylon is an unapologetic, sugar-rush of an experience and I hope the mixed reception doesn’t discourage Chazelle from taking ambitious risks.